Cuban painter, draughtsman and sculptor. He was brought up as a Roman Catholic but was also introduced at an early age to African superstitions and witchcraft. In 1916 he moved to Havana, where he began to make studies of the tropical plants in the Botanical Gardens while studying law at the insistence of his family. He studied painting at the Escuela de Bellas Artes from 1918 to 1923 but disliked the academic teaching and preferred to paint out of doors, in the streets. He left for Spain in autumn 1923, remaining there until 1938. In the mornings he attended the studio of the reactionary painter Fernando Alvarez de Sotomayor, curator of the Prado, who was also the teacher of Salvador Dalí, but in the evenings he worked in the studio where the young non-conformist painters gathered. He was fascinated by the paintings of Hieronymus Bosch and Pieter Bruegel I in the Prado and by the Museo Arqueológico Nacional; it was during this period that he also became aware of the work of Paul Cézanne and Paul Gauguin. His early pictures were in the modern Spanish realist tradition (e.g. Landscape of Las Ventas, 1926–7; Buenos Aires, priv. col., see Fouchet, 1984, p. 20), but they gradually became much more simplified and decorative.
Lam left Spain for Paris in 1938 after fighting in the Spanish Civil War on the Republican side and taking part in the defence of Madrid. With a letter of introduction from the sculptor Manolo, whom he had met in 1937, he met Picasso, who became a friend and an enthusiastic supporter of his work, and who introduced him to Joan Miró, Fernand Léger, Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler and others. During this period he worked mainly in gouache, producing stylized, hieratic figures influenced by Picasso and by African sculpture, as in Mother and Child (gouache, 1050×750 mm, 1939; New York, MOMA). Lam became associated with the Surrealists after meeting André Breton in 1939. In 1940 he fled to Marseille to escape the German invasion and rejoined other Surrealists sheltering there, including Max Ernst and Victor Brauner. In the following year he left for Martinique with André Breton and Claude Lévi-Strauss, among many others, and seven months later again reached Cuba.
Greatly moved, after such a long absence, by the plight of the black population, Lam set out to express their spirit and religious beliefs in a style initially influenced both by Picasso and Ernst and by African sculpture. His first major work of this new type was The Jungle (1942–4), in which four grotesque figures with terrifying masklike heads are half-engulfed by the vegetation of the tropical rain-forest. In 1946 he spent four months with Breton in Haiti, where he extended his knowledge of African divinities and magic rituals by attending some Voodoun ceremonies that greatly interested him. In subsequent pictures, such as The Wedding (1947; Berlin, Tiergarten, N.G.), mysterious totem-like personages, often part animal and part human, express an atmosphere of violence and witchcraft; their linear metamorphic forms, seen against monochrome backgrounds, are sometimes in vigorous movement.
Lam returned to Paris in 1946 by way of New York (where he met Marcel Duchamp, Arshile Gorky and Roberto Matta) and settled in Paris in 1952 after dividing his time between Cuba, New York and Paris. In later paintings such as the Merchant of Dreams (1962; Eindhoven, Stedel. Van Abbemus.) he remained faithful to his early imagery while seeking an ever greater simplification of form and richness of colour. He continued to travel extensively and from 1960 made regular visits to Albisola Mare, near Savona, Italy, where he was encouraged by Asger Jorn to make a number of ceramics (see Fouchet, 1984, pls 160–63). These in turn led him in his last years to model sculptures in the round, for casting in metal, of personages similar to those in his paintings.
From Grove Art Online
© 2009 Oxford University Press